Why Everyone Should Care about the DIA

The Rivera Court, Detroit Institute of Arts

The remaining posts in my three-part series on the sculpture of Richard Artshwager are still forthcoming, but I wanted to take the opportunity to do a quick post about something a bit broader than my usual discussions of sculptural things, about an issue that everyone and anyone even mildly interested in art should care about: the move by Kevyn Orr, the appointed emergency city manager of Detroit, to hire Christie’s auction house to appraise the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts in advance of a possible sale to help offset the massive municipal debt that led to the city recently declaring bankruptcy. Actually, let me revise that statement, the controversy brewing around the possible liquidation of DIA’s collection is an issue that reaches far beyond bleeding heart arts supporters or so called liberal-elites. The implications of such a move speak to much more than just local politics or the politics of publicly-funded arts institutions. Selling the DIA’s collections, which will probably be valued in the billions, would only be a quick fix to a complex problem, and the result would be a greater, irreversible impoverishment of the city of the Detroit. There is a reason that countries like Qatar are investing millions upon millions of dollars toward the establishment of art museum collections – they are source of civic pride, a space of community engagement and education, and an extraordinary place in which to appreciate and understand what makes us human. In a recent opinion piece for Bloomberg the architect James S. Russell succinctly and pointedly wrote:
“So responding to the Detroit debacle by regarding art assets as monetizable for the purpose of paying off creditors is not only wrong, it is strikingly venal and cruel. Detroit’s assets need to be understood in terms of what they can do to revive the city, not on what cash they will produce at auction.”

Claes Oldenburg, Giant Three-Way Plug, Mahogony veneer over wood, 58 1/2 x 38 3/4 x 29 1/2 in 148.5 x 98.5 x 75 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts
Claes Oldenburg, Giant Three-Way Plug, Mahogany veneer over wood, 58 1/2 x 38 3/4 x 29 1/2 in, Detroit Institute of Arts
Eva Hesse, Accession II, 1968, galvanized steel and vinyl, 30 3/4 x 30 3/4 x 30 3/4 in. 78.1 x 78.1 x 78.1 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts
Eva Hesse, Accession II, 1968, galvanized steel and vinyl, 30 3/4 x 30 3/4 x 30 3/4 in., Detroit Institute of Arts

I did my PhD at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor and while I did not get over to Detroit as often as I would have liked, I have fond memories of visiting the city and DIA, of walking through the latter’s richly marbled halls, of having my breath taken away looking at the murals in the Rivera court, or leading in-gallery discussions with my UM students about Oldenburg’s wooden outlet hanging in the stairwell or the enticing tactility of Hesse’s organic, steel cube. I am positive that countless visitors have similar, special memories of visiting the the DIA  – and if you do please contribute to Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes podcast project – but the point is not just to share our personal recollections of any one museum or arts institution, but to acknowledge how important such places are in our lives. Museums are top tourist attractions and bring prominence to the cities they populate, but they, more importantly, provide a place for increasingly rarefied moments, be it of transcendence, education, encounter, community, fun, or a combination of all the above and more. I understand the argument that works of art may not be  as important as the pension that a Detroit police officer or school teacher worked his or her entire life to secure and am aware that I, as an art historian and former museum employee, am an unavoidably biased observer in this argument, but the museum – whether the DIA or your local institution – will always be more than accumulation of really expensive things. Think of the experiences you have had at a museum, whether on a school field trip, a first date, or a lazy Saturday afternoon; and now think of someone, who you did not elect, coming along and deciding to sell it all off. We all need to care about what is or could be happening to the DIA because this could be your town or city (and as a resident of Chicago, a city facing down its own pension problems, I can all to well imagine the scenario though I would guess public outcry would be a bit louder).

Diego Rivera, detail of Detroit Industry (North Wall), 1932-33, fresco, Detroit Institute of Arts

This post may very well have no impact on the plight of the DIA, but my hope is that it becomes one more voice in a rising sea of many more voices bringing attention to the situation. There have been a string of high-profile opinion pieces and numerous critics have weighed in over the past few weeks. Last Wednesday saw the wonderfully successful #DayforDetroit, spearheaded by Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, and even a mention in a larger piece by Rachel Maddow on her eponymous news show about why this is so much more than just an arts or museum issue. As Mary Louise Schumacher wrote in her piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (14 August 2013):
“How many artists are working today because of what they’ve experienced within the galleries at DIA or MAM (Milwaukee Art Museum)? If a city were to gut its primary artistic asset, what would be the impact on the creative life of that city and the community as a whole?
And it is some of these very artists who are playing such a critical role in the transformation of both Detroit and Milwaukee. It is the artists who infuse places of emptiness and decay in these post-industrial cities with beauty, energy and renewal. They represent the new story of these places, the very things that will draw people back to these cities.”

Museums are not perfect and there is always more work to be done in making them more accessible to more people, but they deserve our continued patronage and appreciation for what they do provide. Support the DIA in whatever way(s) you can. Buy a membership. If you live nearby, plan a visit or a day trip. If you are on social media, use those platforms to share your personal memories of the institution or any arts institution for that matter. If nothing else, visit your local museum this weekend, look at all the people looking at art, with their kids and families, and be thankful that such places continue to exist.


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